How the Abrahamic Family House inspired an epic symphony of peace, love and tolerance

Commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival, the epic work features more than 350 musicians

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The Abrahamic Family House has a symphony of its own.

The values of the interfaith complex, currently being built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, are celebrated in an epic orchestral work exemplifying the message of tolerance unifying the three Abrahamic faiths ― Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The piece, Symphony of Three: Peace, Love, Tolerance, is now available to stream on YouTube.

Commissioned and produced by the Abu Dhabi Festival, the project is grand in scale and features four distinct movements written by three composers: Emirati Ihab Darwish, alongside John Debney and David Shire from the US.

More than 350 artists were involved in the recording process, including the Beethoven Academy Orchestra from Poland, six choirs, 12 soloists, five poets and seven vocalists — including Egyptian spiritual singer Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy, South Africa’s Lebo M and South Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Corralling the international talent is Darwish, also the co-artistic director of the symphony.

Speaking to The National days after the online premiere in December, he was emotional.

“I do feel very proud of what we have all achieved because it was a challenging project,” he says.

“What really bonded us together, and made us really push through, was the importance of the symphony’s message, which is a reminder to humanity that we have more things in common than not. We tried to show that both in the music composed and the video.”

Story of mankind

With the project first conceived nearly 18 months ago, with some parts of the world facing social restrictions due to the pandemic, Darwish says nearly all musicians recorded their parts separately in recording studios in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Los Angeles, New York and Milan.

Artists performed behind a green screen to ensure continuity in the video’s visual aesthetics, which portray musicians performing in various outdoor settings under a nocturnal sky.

“A lot of the preparation and the recording process was done on Zoom,” he recalls.

“The only time I really had that physical contact with the musicians was when I was able to travel to Krakow to meet with the orchestra. This was a necessity because the orchestra is really the foundation of the work.”

The Beethoven Academy Orchestra, one of Poland's leading ensembles, is predominately made up of outstanding students and graduates from Europe's elite conservatories.

Throughout the 100-minute work, they do a superb job of not only backing eclectic vocalists, but also channelling the distinct sensibilities of all three composers.

Darwish composed the first and final movements, titled Earth and Tolerance, respectively, while Shire and Debney separately composed the second and third movements, Peace and Love.

Darwish’s contributions fuse classical music elements, such as string sections and the soprano vocals of Jo, with Levant rhythms, including the flutters of the oud performed by Iraqi musician Sadiq Jaafar.

While given free rein to express themselves, Darwish says all composers followed a loose story on the evolution of humanity.

"The first movement is really a prologue and looks at the creation of Earth and mankind," he says.

"The African elements, from the South African choir and Lebo M, and vocals speak to that, with Africa historically being the continent from which a lot of us trace our roots."

The dramatic final movement, Tolerance, is a dazzling interplay of cultures.

American jazz trumpeter Wayne Bergeron's notes intertwine with the spiritual Arabic chants of Tohamy, before Jo returns with an Arabic children’s choir in the final crescendo.

"The finale is a message for tolerance and the need to create dialogue with each other," Darwish says.

"That dialogue can be constructive and beautiful and we show how singers, musicians, and choirs from different cultures faith and nationalities can complement each other.”

It is not preachy

With Symphony of Three: Peace, Love, Tolerance the message is as important the music.

Hence, Abu Dhabi Festival’s move to invite Debney and Shire to compose the second and third movements, Love and Peace .

Both are renowned in Hollywood for their work in music, film and stage.

A prolific composer, Shire has scored major films for five decades, including the Academy Award-winning All The President's Men (1976) and the 2007 thriller Zodiac.

Debney is a three-time Emmy Award winner for his work on television dramas seaQuest DSV, The Young Riders and The Cape.

"Classical music has a rich history of composers creating work talking about the significance of faith," Darwish says.

"But we really wanted to listen to realise the message of The Symphony of Three, so bringing composers from the film world would be ideal because film scores are more expressive and have the ability to make us visualise the story we are trying to tell."

Speaking to The National from his home in Los Angeles, Debney describes the project as one of the most significant of his career.

Elegiac and reflective, his composition, Love, features a wistful vocal turn by US singer Lisbeth Scott and some affecting passages featuring Venezuelan flautist Pedro Eustache and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus.

Debney says the work also gave him the space to process a recent personal loss.

"At the end of last year our family suffered a tragedy with the passing away of my wife's father," he says.

"That loss moved me to change the ending of my piece to make it a prayer for peace and to ask for God's forgiveness."

Shire's movement, Peace, features pensive strings and US tenor Brenton Ryan meditating on the futility of religious conflict with the key lyrics: "I don't want to fulfil my parent's prophecy that life is war. I want peace with all my body and soul."

One aspect all three composers agreed on, Debney recalls, is that they would tackle the symphony in a more abstract fashion.

"We have discussed this internally a few times because we wanted to make sure that we are not telling a history and we are not trying to preach," he says.

"We're just trying to give impressions and a sense of feeling to the listener to allow them to go through their own journey with the music."

While pleased the symphony has been streamed more than a million times in less than a week, Darwish says its true impact will be appreciated when performed live.

While no official statement has been made yet, both Darwish and Debney confirm discussions are being had to gather all the musicians for a live performance of the work as part of the launch of the Abrahamic Family House.

"It is still early days but that would be a beautiful way to present it to the world," Darwish says.

"It will artistically deliver the UAE's vision and message of co-existence, respecting each other and living in harmony."

Updated: January 07, 2023, 11:30 AM